A A A

Understanding the Chinese internet: anthropology’s contribution

By Tom McDonald, on 23 June 2013

Broadband advertisement in village (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Broadband advertisement in village (Photo: Tom McDonald)

I spent last weekend in Oxford at the China and the New Internet World conference. In addition to presenting some of my PhD research, I found the conference a really valuable opportunity to get an idea of what people who are researching the Chinese internet are working on.

Several things impressed me during the conference. The majority of papers focussed on topics of legislation, censorship, political theory, etc., and a large number of them resorted to quantitative analysis or clever automated computer methods in order to reach often quite grand conclusions about ‘the Chinese internet’.

I must confess that, in comparison to such well-composed papers with finely-honed ‘take-home messages’, my own presentation’s conclusion was slightly more muddled. It is always quite unnerving to have to tell your audience at a conference that your conclusion is that you perhaps don’t really have one.

This got me thinking about the role of anthropology in understanding the Chinese internet. Anthropology is one of the most difficult of disciplines, in that it demands that the anthropologist immerses themselves in the lives of their research participants for an extended amount of time. This often means living alone in difficult and tiring conditions amongst people who often hold radically different beliefs or engage in practices that you at times find disagreeable. Not only that, but once this period is over, the same researcher has to grapple with the task of turning the data collected in the field into something understandable to (mostly) western educated readers.

The problem is that very few people want to do this in their lives. Furthermore, not many people want to read the results of what happens when someone does do this, because typically there are no ‘clean’ conclusions. Such stuff makes slightly uncomfortable reading, in that it often challenges the basic assumptions each of us hold that make us confident that the way that we live our lives are necessarily correct.

The vast majority of papers at the conference concentrated on issues of censorship, democracy and urban middle-classes. But as I listened to these papers I wondered what my friends in my fieldsite, a small town and its surrounding villages in north China might have made of this concern with issues of censorship and privacy. It seemed to me as though all the time us academics had been spending in computer labs, libraries and talking to other academics might actually be working to increase the distance between us, as academics, and the people that we claim to be protecting the interests of.

David Kurt Herold summed this issue up quite nicely in his own conference paper, where he commented:

We need more studies that look at how people in China are using the Internet to do what they want to do, i.e. in what practices are Internet users in China engaging and how are they constructing their own offline and online lives in relation to these practices (Hobart, 2000: 41f)? To ask a leading question: Is politics and the pursuit of democracy really the most important issue for Chinese Internet users, or is it just the most important issue for us researchers?

I am still not sure precisely what is going to come out of my own fieldwork in north China for this project. But I have every reason to expect by virtue of my placement in a very ‘normal’ part of China, that the people I will meet over the next year-and-a-half have every chance of changing the way we understand the Chinese internet, and Chinese people, for the better.